From Earth Day to Scilly ‘tis thirty-five leagues

A pub sing is held at the Somerville Armory second Thursdays and fourth Tuesdays.  The rule is any song is welcome as long as it has a chorus that all may join in on.  Last Thursday, the songs ranged from Tom Paxton to songs of courtship and rum.  A woman led us through a rare version of the sea shanty Spanish Ladies.  It had explicit instructions for sailing the English Channel from across the Atlantic.  Here is the chorus.

“We’ll rant and we’ll roar, like true British sailors,

We’ll range and we’ll roam all on the salt seas,

Until we strike soundings

In the Channel of old England.

From Ushant to Scilly ‘tis thirty-five leagues.

Ushant is a French island off of Brittany, the north-western point of France. Ushant marks the mouth or bottom lip of the English Channel.  The 180-foot light shines brightly; it is the most powerful lighthouse in Europe. The Isles of Scilly are off the southwestern tip of Cornwall, the most southerly and westerly point in the United Kingdom.  The isles look like giant granite dice, coarse-grained with porphyritic crystals of feldspar, tossed from Lizard Point.

Grayhound, a three masted lugger, sails from Brittany past Ushant for the Isles of Scilly with a cargo of French Bordeaux and Muscadet, Bretton coffee and tea, chocolate and Bretton Honey on June 14, 2018. Passage:

Sailors, having been at sea for months or years, must have belted out this penultimate homeward-bound song as each landmark hove into sight.

“So the first land we made, it is called the Deadman,

Next Rame Head, off Plymouth, Start, Portland, and the Wight,

We sailed by Beachy,

By Fairlight and Dungeness,

And then bore away for the South Foreland light.

The Deadman, or Deadman’s Point, is today known as Dodman Point, the highest headland on the south Cornwall coast. For a weary sailor, this is the first landfall looming out of the horizon.  South Foreland Lighthouse is at the other end of the Channel, beyond Dover, alerting ships to beware of the Goodwin Sands.

A league is three nautical miles. A nautical mile is 1.15 statute miles. From Ushant to Scilly is actually 112 miles or 97 nautical miles or about 32 ½ leagues.  For the sailor longing for home, thirty-five leagues may be more correct due to wind and tides.

Sailors use nautical miles because it is one minute of latitude.  Sixty nautical miles or twenty leagues is one degree of latitude.  Most fists held aloft at arm’s length span ten degrees or two hundred leagues.  Each of four knuckles represent 2.5 degrees.  When the north star appears one knuckle higher in the sky a northward-bound sailor knows fifty leagues has been traveled.  In the Atlantic, when the pole star, around which all others turn, is 49 degrees high, put the rudder hard over to turn the ship to the  right.  Steer due East by the compass in the binnacle.  This course will take one between Ushant at 48.46 N and the Isles of Scilly at 49.56 N.

“Let go your shank painter, Let go your cat stopper, Haul all your c

Setting stunsails on the bark Europa 

lew garnets, let tack and sheet fly.”  This is how a square-rigged ship furls sail; that is, lash them up against the spars.

Man in doorway tending La Jument Lighthouse, Ushant, December 1989. Photo Jean Guichard

Nowadays, with eyes tacked down  we fist cellphones to navigate city blocks and country miles. Channels are on the TV, and leagues play sports. When Earth Day comes around each April 22, most people are mindless to where we’ve come from and clueless to where we are.  We moan about the latest perturbation to our chores of tending house, keeping habitats, and stewarding the planet.

The principles and practices of Earth Day are not kept alive in song.  When we go astray or bump into an obstacle, we wring our hands, blame and curse.  We need to recognize the channel markers and navigational aids for conservation and restoration; get back on course, stay the course, and persevere.  The way forward is slow.  You can not rush a democracy; all must be on board. Our future depends on knowing the right course to take recognizing if we attempt to sail straight into the winds we won’t get there from here.

Earth Day 1970, to quote Barry Commoner, “was irrefutable evidence that the American people understood the environmental threat and wanted action to resolve it.”  That we remember once a year. Commoner was a biologist who upset the applecart of academia by jumping disciplines and going into social science.  With his Baby Tooth Study in the late 1950s, he demonstrated that the presence of Strontium 90 in children’s teeth was a direct result of nuclear fallout. He put it succinctly: “The greatest single cause of environmental contamination of this planet is radioactivity from test explosions of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere.”  As the result of speaking irrefutable truth to government, above-ground nuclear testing ceased.

Our work was just beginning. “Environmental pollution is an incurable disease.  It can only be prevented.”  Commoner debated those focused on overpopulation as the source of environmental problems.  He observed that poverty “initiates the rise in population,” not the other way around. Rapid population growth of the developing world is the result of not having adequate living standards.  He postulated that capitalist technologies were chiefly responsible for environmental degradation, as opposed to population pressures.  For example,  child labor using hand tools in Congo cobalt mines to keep rechargeable lithium-ion batteries cheap is wrong on so many levels.

In his 1971 bestselling book The Closing Circle, Commoner introduced the idea of sustainability.  He argued that polluting products should be replaced with natural products.  He believed in technology.  But, above all, he believed that it would take social developments to achieve a natural decrease in both population and environmental damage.

“If you can see the light at the end of the tunnel, you are looking the wrong way.”

The fog of excess carbon and too much greenhouse gasses has dimmed the light.  The distance is vast that we need travel from the first Earth Day to the other shore of sustainability and no poverty.  Yet, no matter whether you are caring for your car, your home, your place, or your community, there will always be work to do.

We must steadfastly stay the course of compassionate stewardship and not pollute.  Along the way, look up and with fist held high, remember to count the digits as the leagues go by.  If you care to raise  your voice, please join the chorus.  We’ll rant and we’ll roar together in harmony for a healthier planet.

The Deadman or Dodman Point, Cornwall. Photo: